Canadian Anti-Hate Network
Using a VPN to connect to servers in India, a quick attempt to access the account of a number of Canadian accounts results in black letters reading “Account Withheld.”
Attempting to pull up tweets directly, each one reveals a similar message, the account cannot be viewed in India due to a “legal demand.”
Far from an isolated incident, it is part of a series of efforts by the Government of India to stifle critics on the platform.
A notice from the Indian government sent to Twitter shows requests to remove accounts critical of the sitting government of Narendra Damodardas Modi, the current Indian Prime Minister.
According to The Guardian, the Indian government issued notices to the social media giant to remove people after a shutdown of the internet in Punjab during a manhunt for fugitive Sikh separatist leader Amritpal Singh Sandhu.
"In the interest of transparency, we are writing to inform you that Twitter has received a legal removal demand from the Government of India regarding your Twitter account,” emails sent by Twitter read, claiming further that the content violates India's Information Technology Act.
Among the accounts are NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, the World Sikh Organization, Khalsa Aid Canada, and poet Rupi Kaur. Not included among the names submitted by Twitter to the Lumen Database was the National Canadian Council of Muslims (NCCM), which has been verified as now being added to the block list using an Indian VPN server.
NCCM said they became aware of the ban in 2022.
“That our content and work is not available on Twitter in India is perhaps not surprising, given the levels of censorship that the BJP has gone to when it comes to criticisms of its policies,” Steven Zhou, a spokesperson for NCCM, said in a statement.
“Though not a surprise, what is happening in India is very troubling and Canada cannot stay silent given our commitment to human rights.”
Steven Zhou was formerly employed by the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.
The NCCM regularly is critical of the Modi government, and in March 2023 released a report with the World Sikh Organization of Canada titled “Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Network in Canada” which examines the organization’s history, rhetoric and global reach.
The RSS is an authoritarian organization linked directly to the Modi government. It has targeted Muslim members of the country for a number of acts of violence including murder. Many members have made openly genocidal statements about Muslim people and specifically Muslim citizens of India.
Modi himself joined the ranks of the RSS near the end of the 1960s.
Screen capture of NCCM's Twitter account when viewed through an India-based VPN.
Outside the country, voices critical of the Modi regime and the RSS are targeted for online and in-person harassment, threats, and protests by supporters of Hindutva – an ideology that considers India, which is defined as a secular country by its constitution, as a nation only or primarily for Hindu people.
This is also not the only time the Indian government has put pressure on social media companies in an attempt to silence them. Both Twitter and YouTube caved to demands to remove content in India that was critical of Modi. When the BBC released a documentary on Modi’s involvement in the Gujarat communal riots of 2002 where more than 1,000 people were killed.
In response to the request, Twitter made it impossible to view posts from some opposition members of the Indian Parliament and media.
A request submitted to Twitter, according to the Luman Database, from the Indian Government shows that by using the Information Technology Rule – legislation passed in 2021 – the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting ordered the platform to remove select content.
Rule 16 of the Information Technology Rule allows for the blocking of information in case of emergency.
Luman notes that the regime often is “selective” in its transparency, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has released eight statements detailing how it has used emergency powers to block accounts from online platforms.
“No press releases were made regarding the present blocking order. It remains to be seen whether there were other such uses of emergency powers to issue blocking orders that were passed without press releases or public knowledge,” the Lumen Team wrote in March.
Twitter did not respond meaningfully to a request for comment.